October 2, 2019

MSM Spotlight:
Jazz Arts faculty member, pianist Marc Cary

MSM Jazz Arts faculty member Marc Cary receives praise from The New York Times for his “subspecialty in the area of groove” which he uses in educating young jazz musicians at Manhattan School of Music.

In our first ever #MSMSpotlight to feature a faculty member, we spoke with Marc Cary about his teaching style, his weekly jazz jam sessions with MSM students, and what it’s like to work with these young jazz artists.

Tell us about your Thursday night Harlem Sessions.

Marc: For the last five years, I’ve run a jazz jam session every Thursday night called The Harlem Sessions. Right now we’re at a jazz club called Smoke at 106th St and Broadway. The purpose of the session is to build a community ensemble. We have a menu that we put together—a lot of B-side songs, the less played songs, but the ones that have that soul in it. So we’ve picked about 50 of those songs, and we keep adding to the list. Through the last three years, my involvement with schools like Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard has brought me in contact with all the best musicians that come to town, so I’m very fortunate in that regard. I’m really excited that so many musicians from Manhattan School of Music actually participate, and a lot of them are my students. When we perform together we are developing different concepts, different approaches to the standards, and I have them bring originals as well. We work with a lot of singers, tap dancers, and poets, so they get a chance to really explore a lot of different genres of music and styles of jazz, different styles of jazz.

Marc Cary, Piano (Jazz Arts Faculty). Photos by Toby Winarto, Viola (BM '19, MM '21).

What do you enjoy about working with MSM students, both on stage and in the classroom? 

Marc: The feeling I get from MSM students is hungriness, you know, they’re thirsty for knowledge. A lot of my students contact me outside of school to follow up on things that we went over in class, they’re very diligent musicians. I’m fortunate because what I’m teaching is improvisation, which is one of the main features of the music we call jazz. It’s been really informative for me to teach concepts and watch them develop in front of me and really grasp the same information that was given to me by my elders. Although we’re an institution, I’m able to proceed in a in a way that’s more indicative of the way the music was actually passed along generationally, so I’m really enjoying the process here. I’ve got the freedom to teach in a way that that is organic, and the students seem to be catching on.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Marc: I have an oral style, I tend to use paper only when needed. My style is based on actually embracing the information in the moment. I teach in a way where I’ll teach the whole class a song in 10 minutes, something that they would have usually had to read through 20 times to remember otherwise. It’s a process that seems to work. I’m not exactly sure what’s special about what I’m doing, I just don’t give them a chance to think about the process. We just jump right in, and we’re in it. Next thing you know, we’re actually exploring the different harmonies and different ways to approach the harmonies within 15 minutes of learning the song. I think my teaching style is is similar to the way I was taught on the bandstand, and I try to keep that element present in an institutional setting.

My teaching style is is similar to the way I was taught on the bandstand, and I try to keep that element present in an institutional setting.

Jazz Piano Faculty

What do you think is important for jazz students to learn, what do you try to teach them?

Marc: I think it’s very important for jazz students to learn about different indigenous music. Because jazz, as it is now, has existed for over 100 years, so there’s a history to it. The history of jazz is all about the here and the now, a reflection of that moment in time, which is what I love about jazz. Even popular music in the past —  although most jazz standards were considered popular songs in their day — would be adapted to jazz from either the movies or theater or wherever they came from. Nowadays, what I’m trying to get the kids to recognize is that the missing element, aside from original music, is there’s a lot of popular music that can be adapted into new jazz standards. Creating a jazz version of a pop song will be more relatable than a tune from the 1940s or 1950s. Those are still good songs, but we have to bring those same improvisational qualities into modern music. I want them to think beyond the traditional repertoire we learn here in school, because once they leave MSM they’ll have to learn to play jazz in the here and now. I want them to have practical skills for the real jazz world.

You’re off now to play with Matthew Whitaker at the Blue Note, he’s a graduate of the MSM Precollege program. Tell us about working with Matthew.

Marc: I love Manhattan School of Music’s Precollege program because it gets these young students around master musicians at a very early age before they’re ready to even go to college. So they come here, if they do end up coming back here or wherever they go, they are more equipped than a lot of musicians that weren’t able to attend a place like this. I think Matthew is a very special young man, he has the ability to see with his ears. He makes true use of the information in an oral way, which is really the way I like to teach. I just recorded on Matthew’s debut record, and he recorded on mine two years ago. I really enjoy his spirit in the music. He represents to me the spirit of this young generation, it’s very hungry and very steeped in the tradition. Most of these young musicians have talents that are outside of the music, whether it’s computers or production, they have other elements that we didn’t have necessarily when we grew up. Matthew is someone that really exemplifies that, and I’m really pleased to be working with him.